Front Page Titles (by Subject) MALTHUS. - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 7 (Economic Studies and Essays)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
MALTHUS. - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 7 (Economic Studies and Essays) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 7.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The next great advance in Political Economy was made almost in as unlikely a manner. In the middle of the last century there lived in the South of England a certain Mr. David Malthus, who was a friend and correspondent of Rousseau, and one of his executors. This gentleman had adopted all Rousseau’s ideas of the perfectibility of man, and of the speed with which he would improve if he were only left to himself, and set free from the chains of ancient custom. The air of that time was full of such ideas, and many otherwise quiet and rational persons were excited and enthusiastic about them. Mr. David Malthus had a clever son, Robert, whom he educated with great care, and to whom, doubtless, in season and out of season, he communicated his favourite ideas. At any rate, Robert grew up with a proper antipathy to them. The instinctive reaction of child against parent, which more than almost anything keeps men moving, and prevents “one good custom” from “corrupting the world,” has seldom had a better example. “Train up a child in the way he should go,” a cynic has observed, “and then you may feel safe that he will not walk in it.” Let a child hear much from infancy of nice dreams and pleasing visions, and to the best of your ability you will have prepared him for prosaic carefulness and a dismal rationalism.
The Essay on Population, says Mr. Malthus, “which I published in 1798, was suggested, as is stated in the preface, by a paper in Mr. Godwin’s Enquirer;” and there is a curious story about it. Mr. Godwin was a disciple of Rousseau, and had drawn up a plan of village perfection, in which “every rood was to maintain” its man, and in which mankind were to be happy and at ease, without the annoying restraints of property and marriage. Such “Elysiums” have been sketched in all ages, and here is nothing remarkable about them; but Mr. Malthus’s reply was very remarkable. “You may,” he said, “imagine this perfect picture for a little while, but it will not last. It cannot last. Nature is against it. She has a principle—that of population—which is sure to destroy it. Mankind always, by her arrangements, increase as fast as they can; misery checks their increase, and vice checks it, but nothing else. A perfectly happy and virtuous community, by physical law, is constrained to increase very rapidly; if you look into the fact you will find that it will double every twenty-five years, but there can be no similar increase in their food. The best lands are taken up first, then the next best, then the inferior, at last the worst; at each stage the amount of food produced is less than before. By nature human food increases in a slow arithmetical ratio; man himself increases in a quick geometrical ratio, unless want and vice stop him, so that if you make him happy in a village community for a moment, he will soon multiply so that he shall cease to be happy; there is nothing to stop him; he will ere long reach the inevitable limit where want and wickedness begin to keep him down.”
The world rather eagerly read his doctrine, for the reaction against dreams and visions was strong in many minds. The event of the French Revolution had upset all calculation, broken up all pleasing visions, and disheartened half, or, indeed, much more than half, mankind. Mr. Malthus was as much the mouthpiece of his generation in exposing Utopias, as his father had been in accepting them. The Essay on Population, in its first edition, was read with eager avidity, and its doctrines seem to have been much believed.
Still, when examined, the tenets seemed startling, and what made them even more surprising was that their propounder, Mr. Malthus, was a clergyman. People objected, “Can this really be so? Is it consistent with religion? Can we believe that inevitably man is yoked to sin and misery? That even if you make him good, and if goodness makes him happy, the structure of earth and nature is such as inevitably in a few years to make him miserable again? How is this possible under a benevolent Creator? How can it be made to accord with revelation?” Such objections were difficult to answer, especially as Mr. Malthus was a simple candid man, and they seem to have had much effect in changing his views. At least, in the preface to the second edition, he tells us: “Throughout the whole of the present work, I have so far differed from the former, as to suppose the action of another check to population, which does not come under the head either of vice or misery”. This is the celebrated principle of “self-restraint, moral or prudential”. And he goes on to say that he has endeavoured to soften some of the harshest conclusions of the first essay. But he does not seem to see that he has cut away the ground of his whole argument. If there be this principle of virtuous self-restraint, he no longer answers Godwin; he no longer destroys the dreams of perfectibility. If it be possible for a perfectly virtuous community to limit their numbers, they will perform that duty just as they perform all others; there is no infallible principle that will break up the village community; it can adjust its numbers to its food, and may last for ever. In its first form the Essay on Population was conclusive as an argument, only it was based on untrue facts; in its second form it was based on true facts, but it was inconclusive as an argument.
From this unlucky beginning the established doctrine in Political Economy of “Population” is to be dated. And as was not unnatural, so odd a commencement was unfavourable to its comprehension. From the mode in which he first regarded the subject, it was natural that Mr. Malthus should think more of the painful aspects of the subject than of the opposite ones. At first there were no cheerful aspects; the doctrine was an apparatus for destroying cheerfulness; in its second and truer form it is far less painful, though like most great truths about the world (especially economic ones, which have so much to do with labour and toil), it has its painful side. But Mr. Malthus first put the painful side alone forward, fixed the public mind upon it, and for many years it could see no other.
There is much in the theory of population which it would require a large book to discuss, and I am far from pretending that I could write that book. Many most difficult questions of morals, and many others of physiology, must be treated of, and it is especially hard to discuss such questions virginibus puerisque, as almost all questions are now discussed. Some parts of it could scarcely be managed, except under the decent veil of a dead language. The conditions of marriage form only part of that subject, and a great deal would have to be written on that part in its relations to the actual past, and to the possible future. But what is necessary for abstract Political Economy is much easier. As has been previously explained, the peculiarity of this science is that it abstracts, that is, it seizes upon and alone considers the principal peculiarities of existing man as we find him in the principal commercial nations. It does not profess to be accurately complete as to those nations, even as they are now, still less as they once were, or as they may hereafter be; and still less again does it pretend to be true of other nations, in ages of a different character, cast in a different mould, and occupied with different ideas. Human nature is so various that we cannot treat of it at once briefly and fully; we can only reason on short propositions, and, therefore, we must cut the subject up into distinct portions, each of which can be conceived of by itself and heard out by itself. And no part of human nature is more infinite than the relation between the sexes and its consequences.
Mr. Malthus had no idea of looking at the subject in this way. He thought he was dealing with all nations and all ages. In its original form the Essay propounded a universal principle, destructive of golden visions; in its later forms he deals, first, with principles of population in the most barbarous ages, and then with them in every variety of society which he knew of—nomad or stationary, commercial or agricultural; and there is much in his discussion of the savage society, which is still worth reading, and which was much before his time. His mind was by nature indisposed for, and unfit for, abstractions, indeed, if I may say so with reverence, he always seems to me but a poor hand at a dry argument. Like Adam Smith, he had no idea that he was founding an abstract science; he thought he was dealing wholly with the concrete world, but it so happened that his idea of the concrete world coincided with the most convenient abstraction that can be made from it, and so he became, in spite of himself, the founder of an abstract science.
The assumed laws of population in abstract Political Economy are these:—
First,—That population would soon outstrip the means of feeding it, if it were not kept down by vice, misery, or self-restraint.
Secondly,—That in a state of society where self-restraint does not act at all, or only acts so little that we need not think of it, population will augment till the poorest class of the community have only just enough to support life.
Thirdly,—That in a community where self-restraint acts effectually, each class of the community will augment till it reaches the point at which it begins to exercise that restraint.
In the second case (which was all that Malthus thought of in his first edition), the population increases till it reaches a physical minimum of subsistence—one that is set by natural causes; in the other it increases till it reaches a moral minimum of subsistence—that is, one set by human choice. And it follows that in improving communities this moral minimum is commonly rising, for in most communities more self-restraint of this sort is desirable, and as people improve they mostly are more inclined to exercise it. The physical minimum must be a fixed minimum; the moral may be, and ordinarily is, a moving minimum. A Political Economist does not imagine (as I have previously explained) that vice, misery, and self-restraint are the only causes which affect the rate of increase of population. He well knows that many others act on it. All he says is, that in the principal commercial communities of the world these causes are now in most powerful operation, though they are retarded or helped by others; in a word, that these selected causes will in such communities produce the specified results, in more or less time, though there are other causes which aid in settling how long or how short that time is to be.
For example, it might well be (though I do not know that it has been proved) that some races of men from inherent organisation tend to augment faster than other races. The causes which divide men into races are so many, so hidden, and produce so many effects, that it would not be strange if they had this effect among others. Perhaps there would be more a priori likelihood that they would have such an effect as this than that they would produce some actual effects which are quite certain. There is much evidence that different climates affect differently the sexual desires; some aggravating them and some calming them. And it would seem likely that those races which had in this respect for ages been exposed to intensifying influences, would augment more rapidly than those which had been exposed to mitigating ones. Our knowledge of race-making causes is still most imperfect, and we can never trace race effects separately; they are always combined with the effects of many other causes. In this case the confusion is peculiarly complex, for rules of morality—arising in unknown circumstances, and inherited for untold ages—so retard or quicken the growth of population that it is impossible to isolate the purely physiological phenomenon. Still the principles above laid down afford all possible room for it; they will have their usual action, though morality will have a concurrent action.
Again, we may quite believe that the nervous conditions which luxury engenders are less favourable to the prolificness of population than simpler conditions. On this point, and on this point only, of the theory of population, Adam Smith had remarkable and sound views. “A half-starved Highland woman,” he tells us, “frequently bears more than twenty children, while a pampered fine lady is often incapable of bearing any, and is generally exhausted by two or three. Barrenness, so frequent among women of fashion, is very rare among those of inferior station.” Probably of all causes which regulate the pace of population, the nervous state of the woman is the most important, and it seems to have a kind of cyclical course as society advances. There is much reason to think that in the earliest state in which we know men to have lived—the state of the old slave age and the present savages—the hard labour and insufficient food of the women tend very much to keep down the increase of numbers. At a later period the improvement of food, better shelter, diminution of work during pregnancy, bring the bearing power of women up to its maximum. The Highland woman of Adam Smith probably was able to bring into the world as many children, and, physically at least, as strong children, as any one who ever lived. After that, not only the luxury of which he speaks, but education and the habit of using the mind, tend almost certainly to diminish the producing power. There is only a certain quantity of force in the female frame, and if that force is invested, so to say, in one way, it cannot be used in another.
The same force acts, no doubt, on man, but probably differently. The use of the mind in some ways certainly does not have much, if any, effect on the power of increasing the race. The English judges whose children Mr. Galton counted, showed very considerable capacity of this sort, and they worked in their way as hard as many people ever have or will. But for the most part they do their work with a joyous swing and impetus which show that it does not tell upon the nerves. But anxiety, as has been said, does so tell, and we have seen that there is reason to believe that it much tends to slacken the growth of population; and, probably, any of the higher exercises of the mind, which cause, as they all do, obscure and subtle pain, have a similar effect. But these are problems for the future. No one can say that they are solved as yet; indeed, we are only beginning to try to solve them. Some have been sanguine enough to fancy that the accumulation of them may in distant ages make a stationary state possible, and make it pleasant. But with this Political Economy has nothing to do. It deals with men here and now; it takes certain parts of their nature which are indisputable, and which are important, and considers how these would operate by themselves. Questions as to the ultimate effects of other agencies, physiological or mental, it leaves to other sciences and to futurity.
In the same way, then, Political Economy cannot by itself pretend to solve the many new problems which the sanitary condition of great cities suggests in this age of them. There can be little doubt that these great accumulations of human beings have at least three effects. First, Mr. Galton holds that they diminish in some unknown degree the number of births. “Again, there is a constant tendency of the best men in the country to settle in the great cities, where marriages are less prolific and children are less likely to live. Owing to these several causes, there is a steady check in an old civilisation upon the fertility of the abler classes; the improvident and unambitious are those who chiefly keep up the breed. So the race gradually deteriorates, becoming in each successive generation less fitted for a high civilisation, although it retains the external appearances of one, until the time comes when the whole political and social fabric caves in, and a greater or less relapse to barbarism takes place, during the reign of which the race is perhaps able to recover its tone.” And these consequences seem to Mr. Galton purely evil. But they do not seem so to me. No doubt it is an evil that the accumulation of men in cities weakens the frame, and that they have not the same energy or health as those in the country. Every one must regret this decline of power. But when power has declined in a certain race, it is better that that race should not increase as fast as others. We had better breed from hardy than from weakened specimens. The diminished growth of urban populations seems to be Nature’s remedy for the diminution in their strength. Secondly, great towns indisputably encourage drunkenness. The bad state of the atmosphere there certainly inclines men more to drink than the better air of the country. And this is, no doubt, a great evil. But we may doubt if it is an evil without compensation. The persons most inclined to drunkenness are generally persons of some nervous taint or weakness which they often inherited themselves, and which they might not improbably transmit to their children. I do not, of course, mean that this inherent weakness is irresistible. No doubt the mass of these people can, at first at least, help drinking very well. The heritable taint amounts only to an increased liability to this temptation. But this is quite reason enough to wish that it should not be inherited. Great cities seem to have this special function in the world, that they bring out this taint in the worst specimens. Not only do such persons suffer as usual from the general decline in the multiplying power of city populations, but they also suffer in a way peculiar to themselves. One of the effects of a drunken habit is to diminish this kind of power, as well as, and perhaps more than, most others. Thirdly, great cities collect together a great criminal population, and make them sterile; and so far as crime is connected with a low type of nervous organisation, as it is very often, this sterility is a great gain. Society gets rid of these over-tempted persons, whose peculiar defects are a danger to others as well as to themselves. Great cities must always be in their worst aspects painful spectacles, but this painfulness is somewhat relieved when we see that we can regard them as a huge cleansing machinery, which, no doubt, shows us a great deal that is detestable, but also takes away much of it, and prevents more coming, not only in that place but in others.
Nor has Political Economy any concern with the other purging means, which in a subtle way Nature seems to use all through civilised society. It is said that man is the only animal of whose breed no care is taken. But Nature has not forgotten to take much care of it. Every one who watches society must have seen many instances in which defective families have died out, because they were defective. The men being weak failed to earn their living, and, therefore, could not marry, and the girls wanting from the same cause life and vigour did not find husbands, and so the race died away. And this cause works not only in families weak as a whole, but in the weak members of strong families. All through society there is a constant tendency in civilised life to slacken the pace of population by weeding away those weaker and less valuable.
There seem to be curious processes of Nature also at the other end of the scale of cultivation. The process by which so many savage races die out before civilised man, is certainly not as yet completely explained. Hard work, which civilised man brings, and which most savages cannot bear, accounts for some of it; alcohol, “the fire-water,” as savages call it, accounts for more. But there seems to be a residue still unexplained. The most plausible theory says that this is due to two causes; and first, to the inability of savage nations to bear the diseases to which the hardened frame of civilised men is inured. For ages, in the contested parts of the world which civilised man inhabits, the stronger race has conquered and supplanted the weaker, and the result is a strong animal equal to many difficulties, and able among other things to survive strong diseases. But in the out-of-the-way places which savages inhabit there has been no such incessant conflict, and in consequence there is no such strong animal. The weaker savage succumbs to diseases which the seasoned white man easily bears. Indeed, the way in which savages waste away before “alcohol” is but a case of this; they cannot bear, as white men can, the diseases which it generates. And the second cause which co-operates with this is a certain disheartened tendency of mind which somehow tells on the nerves and which is analogous to the way in which wild animals die out when caught and confined. A certain life and spirit seem as essential to keep men in good numbers as in good health.
Different kinds of food may, too, for aught we know, have an effect not yet understood on man’s power to increase his numbers. The potato was at one time fancied—erroneously, probably—to contain a particular stimulus of this sort. But though this instance may have been a mistake, the conception is possible. We must not always say that the more nutritious food will tend universally to produce the more people, though, no doubt, it usually does so. It may even sometimes have a contrary effect; it may run to quality rather than to quantity; it may make fewer strong people, instead of more weak ones.
I set out these considerations at length because it is most important that there should be no disunion between Political Economy and Physiology, or between it and the more complex forms of social science. No Political Economist has the slightest reason to depreciate the causes which act on population of which his science takes no cognisance. On the contrary, he has the greatest reason for taking an interest in them. They supplement what he discusses; reality is composed of the influences treated of in his science, plus these influences, and of course he wishes to compare his work with fact.
We must be careful to see what these principles themselves mean, for they are often mistaken. Even apart from Physiology, they do not say that an increase in the comfort of a people necessarily tends to augment their numbers. It does so in two cases only. The first case is when the people are at the “physical minimum,” with just enough to support life, and do not exercise self-restraint. Here the moment there is more food there will be more numbers. Such people will always multiply, just as the ryots in Bengal, in a somewhat similar state of things, are multiplying. The second case is when the people are at the “moral minimum,” with just what will support the existing numbers in the sort of life they think proper—be it high or low—such numbers being kept down by self-restraint, and when the people do not change their standard. Then, undoubtedly, more comfort will be turned into more children, and in a little while the new state of things will produce no more comfort to each person than the old one—only there will be more persons to enjoy it. But there is no sort of necessity in this; as has been explained, the “moral minimum” is very movable; the people may change their standard, and in that case more comfort will not produce more persons. There will only be as many as there would have been before, and the average of these will have a better life. Whether a people take one course or the other, will depend on this sort of change, and on its relation to the sort of civilisation enjoyed by the people. I doubt if any general formula can be found for it. Some writers have said that a great sudden change which elevates a whole generation, is more likely to raise the population standard than a series of successive small changes. But as far as I can judge, more depends on the previous preparation of the people than on its absolute amount; a really thrifty people used to self-denial will profit exceedingly by a series of small improvements, they will not “run to numbers,” they will augment in happiness. And an easy-going enjoying nation will mostly not be much the better for any boon of plenty, however great or sudden; they will live at the same average, but the average will not be raised.
Now that we see the extreme delicacy of the assumptions as to population on which abstract Political Economy is based, we shall not be surprised at finding that Mr. Malthus did not apprehend them as they really are. As I have said, he did not in the least know that he was aiding in the foundation of an abstract science. He thought that he was dealing with real men and that the principles which he expounded were all those which affected his subject. Indeed, the best part of his book is an account, which must have cost great labour at that time, of the rate at which population had augmented, and was augmenting, in various countries, and the causes which influenced that rate. And the best part of this is that which relates to the savage state, for even now when that state has been so accurately studied, it is worth while to glance over what Malthus wrote on it, more than fifty years ago. That his analysis of population causes in other countries should be most incomplete was a matter of course; even now we are in the dark on much of this subject. But how incomplete it was will sufficiently appear from a single fact. Though he treats elaborately of Norway and of Switzerland, he has no idea that peasant properties have a tendency to check population. He discusses the subject as if there were no difference in this respect between a people which owns the soil and one which lives by wages. And therefore many of the disquisitions in which he indulges are wholly thrown away.
And Mr. Malthus, as was natural, never cleared his mind entirely of the dismal theory with which he began. Scarcely any man who has evolved a striking and original conception of a subject ever gets rid of it. Long after he himself fancies that he has cleared his mind of it, every one else sees that it haunts him still. Mr. Malthus was peculiarly little likely to get rid of his errors. He had published his original theory, had made a name by publishing it, and he never admitted even to himself how complete a change the foundation of his ideas had undergone. A theory of population which does not include self-restraint, like his first, and one which essentially depends on it, like his second, differ in their essence, and therefore differ in their main consequences. From a theory of population which does not include a prudential check, it follows that plenty cannot last, and that men will always multiply down to misery. But such a theory with a prudential check, has no such consequence. And for many years it was a misfortune to the subject that the original propounder of what were then the best views of it, had connected those views with a mischievous exaggeration, leading straight to lamentable results.
To most other parts of Political Economy Mr. Malthus added very little. And on some he supported errors which were even then becoming antiquated. He was a strenuous advocate of “Protection to Agriculture,” and believed that the supply of all commodities might exceed the demand, which is as much as to say that there is too much of everything. The truth is, that Mr. Malthus had not the practical sagacity necessary for the treatment of Political Economy in a concrete way, or the mastery of abstract ideas necessary to deal with it in what we should now call a scientific way. He tried a bad mixture of both. There is a mist of speculation over his facts, and a vapour of fact over his ideas.
On one important point Mr. Malthus was, however, in advance of his time. He was one of several writers who, at the same time, discovered the true theory of rent. That theory lay, indeed, close to his ideas on population. Its essence (as we have seen) is, that the rent of land arises from the scarcity of good land. Mr. Malthus could not help seeing that Adam Smith (and the French Économistes) were wrong in imputing rent to some pre-eminent merit in the land. He saw that it came from a special fact concerning land, viz., that so little of it is first-rate both in situation and in quality; that most is either not the best, or not in the best place, else there would be no rent of land any more than of air. This truth seems so plain that one can scarcely conceive how it should ever not have been seen. But certainly it was not seen till modern economists pointed it out. And, then, as so often happens, it was on many people’s lips almost at once. The fact was so unmistakably plain that several persons could not help seeing it the moment they began to search for it. Of these, Mr. Malthus was one, but not the best. As we shall see, a much keener intellect than his far more fully examined all its consequences.
There is nothing in Mr. Malthus’s life which is worth mentioning, or which illustrated his doctrines. He was an estimable gentleman, and clerical professor; a “mild pottering person,” I think Carlyle would have called him. Neither his occupation nor his turn of mind particularly fitted him to write on money matters. He was not a man of business, nor had he, like Paley, and similar clergymen, a hard-headed liking for, and an innate insight into, the theory of business. He was a sensible man educated in the midst of illusions; he felt a reaction against them, and devoted the vigour of his youth to disprove and dispel them. And he made many sensible and acute remarks on kindred topics. But he has been among the luckiest of authors, for he has connected his name with the foundation of a lasting science which he did not plan, and would by no means have agreed in.
This celebrity may seem over-fortunate, but it is explained by the circumstances of the time. The age in which he wrote was as much against the Godwinian illusions as Mr. Malthus could be. He and his father were but an instance of a general contrast between successive generations. The generation before 1789 was full of hope, and delighted with happy schemes; that after it was terrified by the French Revolution, insensible to hope and ready for despair. To this change of sentiment Mr. Malthus effectually ministered, and beneath this want of the surface there was one much more real need, to which he was of use also. An immense tide of sentiment favoured the growth of population, no matter what the circumstances and what its means of subsistence. Mr. Pitt, who was the most instructed statesman of the time on economic subjects, said that “the man who had a large family was ‘a benefactor to his country’ ”. And the old English Poor Law was simply a subsidy to the increase of paupers. Against such notions and such practices Mr. Malthus’s views were a most admirable reaction. If there had been no such movement our agricultural districts would by this time have been a pauper warren. That his views were exaggerated, though a subsequent misfortune, was an immediate advantage. He advertised his notions and fixed them among the men who understood a simple and striking exaggeration far more easily than a full and accurate truth. He created an entirely new feeling on his subject.
“If we look,” says Mr. Carlyle, “at the old Poor Law, we shall find it to have become still more insupportable, demanding, if England was not destined for anarchy, to be done away with.” “To create men filled with a theory” that it ought to be done away with “was the one thing needful”; “nature had no readier way of getting it done away with”. To this Mr. Malthus most essentially contributed. It was he who, more than any one else, “filled” men with that theory.